John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 5
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
Some specific pictures come down to us from these schooldays. Three are especially significant.
The Schoolroom: An usher is boxing the ears of his brother Tom; poor frail Tom. Little John rushes up, squares off with his fists, his eyes flashing vengeance, and drives in to the rescue.
The Dining Hall: The clatter and hungry eagerness of seventy boys at the long tables. Keats has a book on his lap. He reaches out unconsciously toward the trencher, munches his ration of bread, while his eyes are intent on the pages of Bishop Burnet's "History of my Own Time."
The Dormitory: It is night. The faint light from the sky reveals the row of beds and the sleeping schoolboys. One is still awake, listening with quiet rapture to the music of a pianoforte. The master's son is playing in a room below. That same music, years after, was heard again in an old castle on St. Agnes' Eve, "yearning like a god in pain."
At fifteen there was an end of schooling. The mother had died of consumption. The fortune of the four Keats children—eight thousand pounds—was in the control of a guardian. Mr. Abbey was a tea-merchant, philistine, prudential. He took John from Enfield and apprenticed him to a surgeon of Edmonton, two miles away.
Bound to a country doctor for five years: to hold his horse; to fetch and carry drugs; to help bleed the patients; to pick up his profession from treatises and observation,—such was Keats' routine. But he had been inoculated with the charm of literature. In his leisure he came across fields to the school for books like a thirsty cotter to the alehouse. Cowden Clarke read poetry to him in the arbor of the school garden.
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The while the woods make answer and their echoes ring.
The "Epithalamion" stirred a bubble of enthusiasm. "The Faerie Queene" opened his eyes wide upon an elysian domain of magic and beauty. That intellectual ambition began to define itself in desire—creative desire. Spenser was simply the agent of Fate.
For some cause—he talks about "clenching his fist at Hammond"—Keats broke loose from the apprenticeship. Yet he held to his drugs and anatomy and went down to the hospital schools in London. He had his way to make in the world. A notebook, still preserved, shows a careful transcription of the medical lectures. The troop of fairies, however, that came into the lecture-room in a sunbeam one morning betrays the unprofessional imagination.